It happened so fast, Jasper barely had time to process - something landed beside the car, something human-shaped but utterly smothered in Shadow, and before he could catch his breath he'd been tossed out the window into traffic, which activated the last-ditch emergency SCRAM spell that he'd switched to a hair-trigger after he was kicked off a roof, and it 'ported him to his most-recently-designated safe place.
He landed halfway in a koi pond.
"A spring rain may fall—
But into our quiet pond
More often it's not," said one of the koi.
Jasper groaned, and hauled himself up and out. "I know you can do better than that, Akagane," he told the koi.
"Probably," Akagane replied. "Are you going to apologize for disturbing our pond?"
He hadn't meant to land in the pond - these days he had to tune his spells more for precision than power - but then again he hadn't accounted for the extra velocity vector of being thrown out of a car when he did the original spellwork, and he'd apparently forgotten to update the safe-point coordinates in longer than he'd realized. "I'm sorry I landed in your pond," he told the small school of koi that were all watching him as he poured pond-water out of his shoes. "It was an accident and I will try not to do it again, believe me."
At least the spell had brought him to a safe place. This was the koi pond in his old Advisories' garden on Long Island, where he'd spent many a pleasant evening complaining at length about his job. And there was Tom Swale, stepping out of the French doors in the back of the house, with a welcoming smile.
"Jasper!" he said. "Good to see you. I thought you were still working out of Washington DC, on that long-term errand."
"I was," Jasper said wetly. "Apparently I forgot to update my SCRAM spell."
"Ah," Tom replied. "I suppose that explains the fishpond landing, too? Well, you're welcome to come in for a coffee and a visit as long as you leave the rest of the fishpond out on the porch."
Jasper grinned thanks and let Tom usher him through in bare feet, with his sopping-wet suit trousers rolled up.
Tom and Carl's place was an airy, open-plan home. Carl sat at the dining room table, paging pensively through a phonebook-sized Senior's Manual. Across from him, a brown-haired, pale-skinned teenage girl was doing what looked like math homework. Or, at least, she had the homework open; at the moment she was staring at the TV in the sitting area, where somebody was shouting about a shooting somewhere, as usual.
"Look who dropped in for a visit," Tom announced. "Nita, this is Jasper Sitwell - he specializes in handling Overshadowing and some of the Lone Power's other more subtle methods. He's been working in DC lately. Jasper, this is Nita Callahan, one of our brightest young wizards, and a good friend of the Lone One's."
"I'm not the Lone One's friend!" Nita protested. "Frenemy, at best. I mean, except the Hesper, I guess, and Ed doesn't count -- you're laughing at me!" she said, with a put-on pout.
"You're also not going to be one of our brightest for much longer if you don't learn some trig like you promised your father, instead of staring at the TV," Carl pointed out.
Jasper smiled at her and sat down at one of the empty chairs beside her. "Don't mind them," he said. "They think it's part of their job to embarrass the teenagers once in awhile. Besides, I've heard about some of your work with that Power - very impressive."
Nita looked down at her math book and mumbled "It really wasn't."
"I've spent the last 18 months working undercover for a man who gave himself body and soul to the Lone One's cause," Jasper told her. "It's that ambiguity, isn't it? He's evil, sure, but he's not evil evil. And then you start to wonder if you're betraying the Powers by not disliking him enough - and then you wonder if you'd be betraying the Powers if you did force yourself to hate him. And then you decide you really, really need about ten years of vacation."
"As if wizards ever really get a vacation," Nita smiled at him, and then she frowned. "Wait, you were working in Washington? Were you involved in that?" She pointed at the TV, still showing footage from news helicopters.
Jasper really looked at it for the first time, and sure enough, they were showing the same tangled stretch of highway he'd just teleported from, and someone who stood a lot like Captain America did was being flashed across the screen. "That would be one of mine," he admitted. "I should probably get back there as soon as I can."
They all paused as the newscaster said something semi-hysterical about automatic rifles and a man in all-black tactical gear.
"Pretty sure you don't want to go back there," Tom pointed out, as he handed Jasper a coffee.
"No," Jasper agreed. "But I'm under Oath. I don't suppose any of you can loan me the energy for another transport spell?"
"I could," Nita offered. "I haven't been doing anything super-strenuous lately."
"How old are you? Fourteen?" Jasper asked. "You probably still have the power to go to the Moon for a Sunday picnic."
"Sixteen!" Nita protested, but she didn't deny the Moon.
Carl turned another page in the manual. "No need to hurry, Jasper. Looks like Natasha Romanov and Sam Wilson have the job covered for now."
Sam Wilson? "Wait, that was the Sam Wilson?" Jasper asked. When the handsome black man hustled him into the van, and whispered "Dai, Cousin," instead of the "Hail Hydra" he'd been more used to lately, he'd known he was in good hands. He just hadn't known it was that wizard Sam.
"Should I know who Sam Wilson is?" Nita asked, looking between them. "And why you're more excited about him than about Captain America?"
"Look up his Ordeal in the Manual sometime when you're bored," Tom said as he sat down with the rest of them. "It makes good reading."
"Look up what he's been doing since his ordeal," Jasper said. Getting to meet Cap was all well and good, but Sam Wilson.
"That too," Tom added cheerfully. Nita looked intrigued. Jasper kind of wanted to fall back into the koi pond - that had not been the circumstances he'd've chosen to meet one of the greatest wizards on Earth.
"Natasha Romanov, Sam Wilson, and... James Barnes?" Carl said, still looking down at the Seniors' Manual.
"What?" Tom asked.
Carl gestured down. "Manual says the Errand in DC is now assigned to wizards Natasha Romanov, Sam Wilson, and a James Barnes, who's been on hiatus for personal reasons since... 1945?" Carl squinted down at the manual. "That can't possibly be right, he's got the power levels of a twenty-five-year-old."
"James Barnes?" Jasper asked, and looked back at the TV. They were now replaying a couple of seconds of blurry footage of the figure in black, and Jasper tried to mentally match its stance against archive footage he'd watched over and over in the days after Cap came back. It was just barely possible. "I wonder..."
"You wonder?" Carl said.
"James Buchanan Barnes," Jasper said. "He was Cap's second in command during WWII. And a wizard."
"He died in the war, didn't he?" said Tom.
"I thought so. But the person who triggered my SCRAM spell felt like-- well, felt like a wizard who'd been drowned under the Lone Power's will for so long that there was almost nothing left of him. If that's James Barnes..."
Nita looked intrigued. "You think he's been Overshadowed instead of dead all this time?"
"If he has, I really need to get back there," Jasper said.
"I could transport you there," Nita said. "It sounds like the kind of work I might be able to help with--"
"You aren't going anywhere until after finals, young lady, on pain of Harry Callahan," Tom told her.
"And you aren't either, Jasper," Carl added.
"Manual shows you as inactive as of five minutes ago. You're off the case," Carl told him. And then added firmly, "Which is not any sort of disapproval of the way you carried out your work - it means that the thing your specific skills were needed for is over, and the Powers think you've earned a break."
"Which also means you're not loaning him the power to get back to DC, Nita," Tom added sternly. "He's not on Errantry anymore, so he can get there with his own resources if he really wants to."
"But transit's going to be a mess!" he protested, waving at the TV. "Even the worldgates at Union Station will probably be impassible for a week, the way things are going, they're tetchy enough on good days."
"Our guest bedroom, on the other hand," said Carl, "is not a mess, and is currently unoccupied. You're welcome to stay as long as you need to."
"I'd just give in," Nita told him. "When they get like this you might as well."
"Which doesn't explain why you haven't finished any proofs yet, Ms. Callahan," Carl pointed out.
She bravely ignored him. "Do you really know Captain America?" she asked him.
He shrugged. "We've met. He's a good guy but I don't think he likes me very much right now."
"Well, he's not a wizard," Nita said blithely. "But my dad's a big fan. He's having a barbecue tomorrow. You should come. You can talk about superheroes instead of which colleges I'm supposed to be applying to and why I don't have an A in math."
"That sounds like a mission fully worthy of my experience."
"It really, really is."
"I'll go put sheets on the guest bed," Tom said, getting up again.
"Fine, fine," Jasper said, and made a face at his coffee. "Just until the trains are running again or Rhiow clears the local worldgates. You two are worse than Phil ever was."
"Yay," said Nita quietly.
"Yay," Jasper agreed.
SOME TIME LATER
The Winter Soldier walked out of a back entrance of one of the Smithsonian's offsite storage facilities, where they kept the things that weren't important enough to do anything with, but were too important to throw away. He was carrying a gray cardboard box with an accession number that dated it to the late 1940s and the description "Barnes, James. Personal effects."
He didn't know if there would be any more answers here than in the public exhibit, but he had as much right to the contents of the box as the museum did, and he needed to know.
He didn't open it until he was back in his safe space in a small concrete room in a rarely-used water treatment facility. He lit a candle rather than risking somebody noticing the electricity usage, and opened the box. Everything was carefully packed in Mylar in a way that made him shudder. Some clothes, a pocketknife, some papers he'd read later but that didn't feel like they were what he was looking for, a book-- he stopped at the book, and carefully unwrapped it from its packaging.
It was a cheap old clothbound book, probably hopelessly old-fashioned now, with rough yellow pages. The gold-embossed title read The Wonder Book Of Heroes And Bravery For Boys and Girls. "Steve," he said, though he didn't know why. This was a Steve sort of thing, not his. But it was his - the book felt familiar, in the only way he could still trust - the way where the very structure of his body had learned to know a thing, indelible. He must have carried this book a lot, a long time ago.
He must have read it a lot, too. He had opened it up to a favorite page without realizing what he was doing, his right hand remembering what his brain couldn't, yet. He looked down at the words on that page, some kind of poem. That felt familiar, too. Very familiar. Somewhere he still knew those words by heart, but right now, he needed to read them.
"In Life's name," he read, "And for Life's sake," and then he stopped. Because this was important. Maybe the most important thing. And then he kept reading, by the wobbly candlelight, in a wavering unpracticed voiced that gained confidence as he went. "I say that I will use the Art for nothing but the service of that Life. I will guard growth and ease pain. I will fight to preserve what grows and lives well in its own way; and I will change no object or creature unless its growth and life, or that of the system of which it is part, are threatened. To these ends, in the practice of my Art, I will put aside fear for courage, and death for life, when it is right to do so -- till Universe's end."